AUGUSTA – “Taking the fifth” assumed a whole new meaning Wednesday as members of the state ethics commission weighed a complaint against a publicly funded Maine Senate candidate who allegedly bartered the use of prime advertising space for a bottle of booze.
The state’s Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices also instructed Green Independent Party gubernatorial candidate Jonathan Carter to return to the state any interest earned on the nearly $1 million he received this year in public campaign funds.
State Rep. John L. Patrick, D-Rumford, filed his complaint with the commission after he attempted to obtain permission from Kenneth Briggette of West Peru to temporarily erect a campaign sign on some property Briggette owns in Rumford. Located near a heavily traveled area in western Maine, Briggette’s Frost Motor Supply property was highly sought by more than one candidate during the political season. Patrick was eager to add his House sign to the collection along with one for Bruce Bryant, a Dixfield Democrat who was running against Robert Cameron, a Rumford Republican for Senate District 24.
“Ken said he had no problem with Bruce Bryant and I placing a sign on his property except that Rob Cameron had already stopped by and dropped off a fifth of whiskey so he could get first choice where to place his sign at the Frost Motor Supply location,” Patrick said.
Patrick told the commissioners he was concerned that as a publicly funded candidate, Cameron may have been routinely using fifths of liquor to obtain prime position at a number of other sites where his signs were prominently featured.
Cameron was not present during Wednesday’s meeting, but in a Nov. 5 letter addressed to William C. Hain III, director of the ethics commission, he claimed that Patrick’s allegations came as “a shock” to him. Cameron said he initially couldn’t imagine what Patrick was referring to until he made some inquiries.
“Much to my surprise, one of my helpers told me that Mr. Briggette had indicated that some other candidates had provided him with a half-gallon of an alcoholic beverage for the privilege of using his property for sign placement,” Cameron wrote. “My campaign aide made an executive decision to provide Mr. Briggette with a fifth of the beverage that he requested.”
Cameron said he had no prior knowledge of the whiskey connection with Briggette’s property and that he has been assured it was not routinely used in other aspects of his campaign strategy.
Members of the commission concluded a publicly funded candidate such as Cameron could not accept in-kind contributions and that they expected to see the bottle of whiskey listed as an expense when campaign finance reports are received on Dec. 17.
With little discussion, the commissioners also concluded that Jonathan Carter should return what Hain said could amount to “several hundred” dollars in interest earned on the nearly $1 million the candidate received this year in taxpayer funding. Carter called the ethics commission this month for guidance on how to proceed with the interest as he closed down his campaign operation. Hain said that in the past, interest on public funds has been entered under a miscellaneous heading since the figure rarely amounted to more than a few dollars. Now that more gubernatorial candidates might be considering publicly funded campaigns, the amount of interest earned on their accounts could potentially be substantial.
“I think the commission needs to establish a policy on this that we can then pursue in the future when providing information to Clean Election candidates,” Hain said.